Thursday, August 13, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Collateral

Collateral refers to both Jamie Foxx's character and all the casualties caused by Tom Cruise, including that poor sandwich Jamie Foxx brought with him to work.

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

You know you're watching a Michael Mann movie when the drug trade isn't referred to as the drug trade but as "the exotic substances business." In the 2004 thriller Collateral, Mann is, as usual, simultaneously in love with words and so critical of other directors' overuse of them that he shows how satisfying and gripping cinema can be when it's not so over-reliant on words. Unnecessary exposition is a disease that's so awful to experience while watching films or TV that it needs its own telethon. Like how the Jerry Lewis Telethon used to show every year that same moldy clip of Buddy Hackett weeping over the suffering Jerry's Kids experience due to muscular dystrophy, I'd like to see Bobby Moynihan or Broad City star John Gemberling plead weepingly to viewers to give a few dollars to help out the Nolan brothers and cure Jonathan of his tendency outside of Person of Interest to make characters over-explain themselves.

Collateral is fascinating for the way Mann came up with extremely detailed backstories--whether it's for sociopathic contract killer Vincent (Tom Cruise), Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), the mild-mannered L.A. cabbie who becomes Vincent's chauffeur, hostage and reluctant accomplice, or the powerful "off-shore narco-trafficking cartel" that employs Vincent and is run by capos like Felix Reyes-Torrena (Javier Bardem)--and then threw almost all of that information out of the movie, perhaps as a challenge to himself to keep his movie from drowning in unnatural-sounding, on-the-nose dialogue. Whenever he'd discuss that approach of making the storytelling as efficient as possible in Collateral, Mann would describe it as chopping off the first and second acts of a movie so that it's only the third act. But those elaborate backstories are all there in the eyes and body language of Cruise and Foxx, and sometimes you can miss those nuances Cruise and Foxx bring to their performances, like when Vincent appears to be nauseated about killing a federal prosecution witness (Barry Shabaka Henley) whose love of the music of jazz legends like Miles Davis (he's seen performing Davis' "Spanish Key") was similar to Vincent's or when Vincent briefly panics in the middle of a scuffle during a Koreatown nightclub shootout. Mann pointed out in his Collateral audio commentary that during the scuffle, Vincent is briefly reverting to his 11-year-old self and re-experiencing the fear he felt when he was being bullied, a childhood fear Vincent never once mentions in the film, and Collateral is all the more better for not having Cruise unconvincingly deliver pages and pages of dialogue about a childhood trauma that keeps him sharp (*SNAP!*), on the edge (*SNAP!*), where he's gotta be.

The three months of weapons and combat training Cruise agreed to undertake for his Collateral role is a great example of why Cruise is batshit, but that craziness is also what makes him fascinating to watch as a man of action in this film, Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol and now Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation. He can be obnoxious as either a romantic lead (if there were a drinking game for whenever he touches the face of his leading lady, we'd all be dead from alcohol poisoning), a talk show guest with a psychotic-sounding, unsettling laugh or a Scientology mouthpiece, but in an actioner like Collateral, he's a remarkable actor and not at all obnoxious. Cruise's physicality and his ease in a business suit with performing marksman stances that may look unconventional on film but are commonplace to expert marksmen--especially during the K-town club sequence--would have made him perfect as the similarly dressed Christopher Chance in a more faithful live-action version of the Peter Milligan/Cliff Chiang/Javier Pulido incarnation of Human Target (which the short-lived and much more family-friendly Fox show of the same name was loosely based on).

If Felix wanted to kill all the grand-jury witnesses without attracting too much attention, he could have just sent each of them a delivery of undercooked tacos.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)

Cruise's weapons training really paid off, and he's convincing as a military-trained assassin in Collateral, but then Bardem shows up for his cameo and radiates so much power and quiet menace without ever getting out of his seat that part of me wishes Bardem played Vincent instead of Cruise. Bardem is a huge part of why the scene where Max attempts to trick Felix into thinking he's Vincent in order to recover Vincent's lost intel is my favorite scene in Collateral. Cruise isn't even in this Mexican nightclub scene at all. Once Vincent sets foot in Max's cab, Collateral is non-stop tension, but the tension is at its thickest in the scene between Felix and Max because Max is out of his cab and therefore, out of his element, and impersonating Vincent to prevent him from killing his mother Ida (Irma P. Hall)--a woman Max can barely even tolerate--is somehow an even bigger test for Max than all the other tests Vincent previously put him through. Now Max has to do some acting with a gun to his head, which basically describes every single audition in Hollywood.

Bardem and Foxx play the tension so beautifully (the scene also allows Foxx to tap into some of his skills as a comedic performer, but because this is a Mann thriller and not In Living Color or Horrible Bosses, Foxx doesn't play the humorous side of the scene too broadly). You don't know if or when Felix is going to explode, and you don't know if Max is going to get out of Felix's club alive either. Bardem's smooth dance back and forth between benevolence ("Do you know who they like even better than Santa Claus? His helper. Pedro el Negro. Black Peter...") and pent-up anger ("How do you think jolly old Santa Claus would feel if one day Pedro came into his office and said, 'I lost the list'? How fucking furious do you think he will get?") is a bit more interesting than Cruise's all-intense-all-the-time approach. Oh well, at least Bardem got a chance to basically play Vincent three years later in No Country for Old Men. I think he even won an Oscar for it.

This is as close as Tom Cruise will ever get to making a classroom genre movie.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)

Collateral is the closest the ultra-somber Mann has ever gotten--and will probably ever get--in his film directing career to making a comedy. There are several funny moments in Collateral, whether it's Vincent coaching Meek Max on how to tell his pushy dispatcher to fuck off; the Richard T. Jones cop character's unconvinced reaction to Max's lie about hitting a deer on Slauson Avenue ("A South Central deer?"); the hunter (Mark Ruffalo's Detective Fanning) and the prey (Vincent) not knowing they're in the same elevator; or Max-as-Vincent being unable to resist still being Max the business-minded cabbie when he offers Felix's "Hermès/Façonnable ass" a discount (it's also a clever way for Max to stick it to Vincent and deprive him of some cash). But Mann wisely chooses to play those moments as deadpan and as truthfully and honestly as possible. Even some of Al Pacino's shoutiest or chattiest scenes during Heat aren't quite as humorous as those moments during Collateral. In fact, Mann studied Billy Wilder comedies to nail the right tone and delivery for Vincent's sarcasm.

Jason Statham's cameo in Collateral's first scene as a delivery man who's most likely his Frank Martin character from The Transporter is the first sign that Mann and his actors aren't out to brood about corporate malfeasance, racism or society's encroachment on individualism for two hours and are out to simply entertain and bring summertime moviegoers to the edges of their seats (DreamWorks released Collateral in August). Collateral is to Mann's big-screen filmography what Inside Man is to Spike Lee's: it's his most escapist and most popcorn piece of work. I love how the most comedic scene in Collateral is Max's reluctant introduction of a bizarrely polite and formal Vincent to Ida in her hospital room and how Foxx is the least comedic performer in that scene. Both the hospital room scene and the Bardem/Foxx exchange catapult Collateral into being my favorite of Foxx's serious movies. In another bit of unmentioned backstory Mann revealed in his commentrak, Ida is a Livia Soprano-style cold fish who's alienated all her sons so much that all of them except Max have moved out of L.A. just to get away from her. Ida, who knows nothing about Vincent's killings, appears to like Vincent more than any of her sons. She and the similarly cold-blooded Vincent, whose mother died when he was young (that's why he bristles at Max's reluctance to visit Ida, whom Max unhappily visits every night), were made for each other as mom and son. It's Mann channeling Hitchcock at his most darkly comic.

One of the film's other twisted jokes is that Max's own prudishness, partly instilled by Ida, has stifled and crippled Max so badly (he keeps telling customers about his dream of starting his own limo business but can't admit that he's too scared to act on it) that a sociopath--and not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an unorthodox classroom teacher or some little orphan--ends up being the one to snap Max out of it and teach him to grab life by the balls by taking more risks and improvising. Some black Collateral fans interestingly view Mann's movie as an allegory of black liberation and the struggles against white privilege (how fitting that this allegory takes place in racially mixed L.A., a city the privileged and wealthy Vincent despises for being too sprawling and disconnected), with the working-class Max's conflict with Vincent functioning as the modern-day equivalent of a slave learning to outwit the overseer and Vincent's demise signaling the end of white privilege. But I don't think Mann and screenwriter Stuart Beattie are that savvy enough to have considered that kind of interpretation for Collateral (Beattie based his script on a cab ride he took, and the ride made him wonder, "What would happen if this cabbie picked up a homicidal maniac and ended up trusting this maniac?"). I see Collateral as more like Mann and Beattie's way of playing around with a couple of formulas: the aforementioned "stuffy character who's taught by another character to loosen up" movie (I bet Collateral was pitched at an early '00s DreamWorks pitch meeting as "The Last Detail if Jack Nicholson killed people") and the tiresome "Magical Negro" drama (like DreamWorks' earlier release The Legend of Bagger Vance, which starred Mann's Ali lead Will Smith). While considering Foxx for the role that Adam Sandler once expressed interest in playing, I could see Mann thinking, in his usual wordy way of speaking, "Maybe it would be more stimulating to the amygdala if we reverse the 'Magic Negro' narrative and make the African American male the one who's beaten down by life and is too ossified to better appreciate it, and a Caucasian hitman ends up being his preceptor."

Collateral really soars during its character study half, due to the chemistry between the African American male formerly known as Wanda and his preceptor. It's a good thing the digital video cinematography by Paul Cameron, who left the project a few weeks into filming due to creative differences with Mann, and his replacement Dion Beebe is intriguing and striking from start to finish. There are so many nifty visual things going on with the high-def cameras' ability to capture little subtleties in the colors of the L.A. night sky and the shimmering city lights (like Darren Franich said in his lengthy 2014 EW essay about Collateral, "You're constantly aware that those lights represent real people--and that those real people don't notice the horrors being perpetrated by Vincent") that those things are able to distract you from how conventional the third act is compared to the rest of Collateral--a movie Mann thought of as a two-hour third act!--when you think about it afterward.

Check it out. It's a more fascinating parallel universe where Fish Mooney is much prettier and she chose to be a federal attorney instead of a crime boss.
(Photo source: EW)

The movie ditches the character study stuff and goes into full-on "don't open that door, girl!" thriller mode to place Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), Max's previous customer and the federal prosecutor who wants to shut down Felix's cartel, in danger and in Vincent's crosshairs. The music becomes conventional too: all those bluesy instrumentals Mann originally had in mind for Thief (before he opted for Tangerine Dream) and all those pulsating source cues by the likes of Groove Armada and Paul Oakenfold give way to James Newton Howard in symphonic and percussion-heavy thriller mode a la The Fugitive. Vincent completely shuts off the internal conflict over killing people he's been starting to experience--a little too abruptly for some film critics' tastes--and becomes the Terminator. Sure, film critics, Collateral is a more arresting thriller when Vincent's in conflicted mode, but on second thought, what else is he going to do? Not finish the job? Like Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley when they briefly bond during Heat over their existential worries about a life without their jobs, killing is all Vincent knows how to do, and if he's going to die doing the thing he does best, that's fine by him. He's a typical professional in a Mann movie.

Two big legacies emerged from Collateral. Cruise proved he can really pull off playing a villain whose only purpose for living is killing, but only when a director like Mann challenges Cruise to step out of his comfort zone and gets him to do some acting instead of "ACTING!"--which is what his previous turn as a villain was like in Interview with the Vampire. The other big legacy is the movie's innovations in digital video cinematography in order to capture nighttime footage--or things like the SoCal palm trees behind Vincent and Max--that couldn't have been achieved with regular film cameras.

"Here, while the [Collateral] digital photography seems fresh and oftentimes comes across as electrically alive, it still looks pretty crummy," wrote either Rodrigo Perez or Jessica Kiang or that Playlist guy who got arrested for pimping an underage girl (like Matt Zoller Seitz implied, The Playlist's decision to not conclude each capsule review in its Mann movie retrospective with a byline causes its otherwise solid retrospective to be kind of a muddled drag). Eh, it was 2004. Get off the movie's 2004 ass. That's such a reductive way of talking about Collateral's impact on cinematography. Before Collateral, Mann experimented with digital video in Ali and on Robbery Homicide Division, the short-lived CBS procedural he produced, but Collateral is where he, with the help of Cameron and Beebe, finally figured out how to keep digital video from looking as crummy as it often did on Robbery Homicide Division (the only post-Collateral Mann movie I've seen is Public Enemies, and I don't think Dante Spinotti's HD cinematography in that 2009 movie looks as impressive as Collateral's still does). A bunch of mainstream films (some shitty, mostly good) followed in Collateral's footsteps and chose to shoot completely in digital, and like Beebe said to American Cinematographer 10 years after Collateral's release, thanks to his movie, filmmakers at night can go out into a street and shoot under streetlights instead of having to light entire city blocks (according to Mann, that standard way of lighting movie sets at night would have ruined the realistic lighting he wanted for Collateral's street scenes).

If this were John Woo holding the camera, he'd be trying to imagine how many doves he can squeeze into this shot.
Michael Mann

Also, whatever crumminess there is in some of Collateral's HD cinematography actually adds an element of "Hmm, which of the 15% of Collateral that Mann shot on film am I watching now?" to the movie in repeat viewings (while Franich is fascinated in repeat viewings by how "Mann shoots Collateral on video and doesn't try to hide it"). If you watch enough early '00s indie movies that were shot in HD, you start to be able to distinguish digital grain from film grain, as well as notice how early '00s digital video has weird smear effects whenever someone's in motion, so a second or third viewing of Collateral turns into a diverting game of "Which scene was not shot in HD?" (Answers: Debi Mazar's scene; the late afternoon scene of Max speaking in Spanish to the gas station clerk; the shots of Max cleaning his cab and he and the other cabbies preparing to drive out of their garage; the jazz club scene; Bardem's scene; and all the shots of Vincent and Max inside the K-town club except for when Vincent kills his assigned Korean target.)

The visuals Mann and Beebe were able to achieve with HD cinematography also really emphasize how much Mann is a cinematic Edward Hopper, fixated on lives in perpetual limbo, much like Hopper was in his paintings. Franich concludes his essay with an astute interpretation of Collateral as a story about L.A. as a purgatory for Max, who's been driving in circles for the past 12 years. But Franich likes to pretend that after Vincent's death inside a sort of limbo--a subway train that looks like it won't ever stop running--and the last shot of a newly confident Max and an exhausted Annie heading out together into both the morning and an uncertain but hopeful future, Max is doomed to relive the same hellish evening with Vincent for the rest of his life a la Groundhog Day. Nah, that shit's too depressing. Max just learned to break out of the limbo he imposed upon himself, and the reward he gets is a time loop? Sure, it's in keeping with how Mann stories frequently end tragically, ever since Thief and all those Miami Vice episodes with downbeat conclusions and that gut-punch of an "Executive Producer Michael Mann" credit defiantly saying each week, "You expecting a freeze-framed high-five between Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, motherfucker?" But let Max win this one. The motherfucker motherhater earned it.

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